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A Good Night’s Sleep

15 July 2005

Businesses are at risk now more than ever before with globalisation, network integration and climate
change let alone political instability. The Civil Contingencies Act puts planning for emergency situations at the centre of corporate and community resilience against ‘shocks’ as Michael Charlton-Weedy explains

DO YOU SLEEP WELL? It’s not surprising if you don’t, because business life is full of disturbing paradoxes. On one hand, we have never had greater technical control of our condition. On the other, in a networked world, we are more dependent on others than ever before. We place our faith in systems, yet they are increasingly complex. We celebrate our diversity, but the business products, systems and processes that serve us are globally homogenous. Corporate brands have never been more valuable, yet the reputations that underpin them are increasingly vulnerable. Our wellbeing has never been better, yet we are less confident and resilient in adversity than our parents and grandparents. People are less deferential to managers, yet expect more of them, especially when things go wrong.

Networks – real, virtual or human - transmit shocks with the same efficiency as they move information and transport products. The impact of shock is enhanced by network complexity, and so the consequences are asymmetric. The twin virtues of ‘just in time’ and ‘lean machine’ invert to deprive managers of the ability, assets and time to prevent shock from becoming emergency.

The rapid spread of emergency across related networks creates crisis. This is not a ‘big emergency’, but rather a situation in which both internal and mutual cohesion breaks down. The fuel protests in 2000 were a good example of this phenomenon. Supermarket shelves were empty of bread and other essentials within hours of the media raising the possibility of supply problems. The NHS was hit within 48 hours, not by a shortage of fuel for ambulances, but by the inability of their cleaners to get to work. We must remember that the protesters did not expect to achieve that level of disruption when they embarked on their action. They were not ruthless enemies of the state; they had not studied the networks; and they were not working to a sophisticated plan.

The impact of fuel protests, floods, foot and mouth disease and the Tsunami are self-evident, but the effects of 9/11 and a fear of the unknowns of terrorism may distort our view of the balance of hazards and threats to business and the community. The underlying truth remains that resilience is for everyone, and it only exists when everyone is involved. It covers every form of disruptive challenge, and the emergence of international terrorism has not reduced the likelihood of natural disasters, accidents, business failure and other hazards.

Nevertheless, if we are resilient to the impact of a major terrorist attack, then we shall be well placed to cope with many other eventualities. As these activities form a fundamental part of national security the Government takes the lead, propagates awareness and makes laws to advance resilience. This is the purpose of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which underlines the priority that the Government places on resilience at every level from local to national.

The Act requires both public and private sectors to engage in planning not only for resilience in general, but also for the business continuity that provides its commercial underpinning. This is not ‘red tape and regulation’, rather something that is in every business’ best interests, and by extension, everyone’s interest. No matter what Whitehall does, we cannot have a resilient nation without a resilient private commercial sector. Nor is that requirement restricted to those areas that have traditionally provided essential supplies and services such as electricity and water, because many of their inputs come through extended sub-contract and supply chains that are by similarly essential.

The network effect is an inescapable fact of life: we depend on others; others depend on us. Superimposed on that mutual dependency is the uncomfortable history that 60 per cent of companies that suffer a major disruption, and do not have continuity and emergency plans, are likely to be out of business within two years. All of that 60 percent will be suppliers or customers, debtors or creditors to other businesses. On that basis it is indeed surprising that so many companies fail to consider risk – including the possible failure of their debtors - and plan for survival with the same priority as they do for growth and profit.

The facilities manager earns his living amidst this blizzard of risks. The most pressing risks are often in the FM domain, the least glamorous and therefore especially difficult to elevate to senior management. Yet it is precisely those risks that can stop a business in its tracks, and if they are not successfully managed, bring it down entirely. To complete your happiness, many of your risks are external:
....Are you confident that you have expanded your thinking far enough beyond your immediate responsibilities?
....How frequently do you consult your neighbours in a structured and systematic way to identify and communicate risks?
....To what extent do your back-ups rely on the same circuits as your primary supplies and services?
....What are the occupying business’ key processes and functions?

The list of questions is long, and grows longer the more you ask because each answer creates another question. But the biggest question looms over everything you do: in an emergency will the business that you support survive because or in spite of your efforts?

It helps to get ahead and stay ahead of the game. As the effects of the Civil Contingencies Act percolate downwards and outwards through the public and private sectors, authorities and businesses will ask increasingly penetrating questions of those organisations that support, supply and administer them. Compliance audit will surely follow: compliance demands competence, and competence requires systems, processes, training and experience. You may be confident of your routine experience, but does it include the successful management of real emergencies and the subsequent recovery from them?

Your systems, processes and physical precautions will only take you part of the way in managing the array of complex and dynamic risks. You have to attend to the vital human component: resilience is as much a state of mind as anything else. Only you have the flexibility and imagination needed to resolve the complexity and adapt generic plans to meet specific cases; you cannot automate processes of this degree of variability.

This dependence on you and your performance raises the premium on your functional training, especially if you are to withstand the pressures of both the internal and external expectations that will bear upon you in the midst of an emergency. Of course you have completed plenty of training over the years, but would it meet the compliance tests of quality, professional accreditation and currency? Would it meet the stipulations of your insurers?

If you feel less than wholly confident in answering the questions that this article poses, then you and your staff should undertake the right training, right now. The Cabinet Office Emergency Planning College is the UK’s foremost resilience training organisation, delivering courses to private and public sector customers in the management of physical risk, business continuity and emergencies that are specifically tailored to the requirements of the Civil Contingencies Act.

The College in conjunction with the Emergency Planning Society and the Business Continuity Institute, set the professional standards in their areas of expertise. The College also offers a training consultancy service to help you to identify your organisation’s resilience training and development needs; design practical and economic bespoke solutions; and deliver courses nationwide.

But our core business is sleep therapy, so that you are not kept awake by the unpleasant things that might just go bump in the night.

....Michael Charlton-Weedy is chief executive of the Emergency Planning College

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